Swans Commentary » swans.com September 10, 2012  



Conservative Antinomies For The Ages


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.





(Swans - September 10, 2012)   The Republican convention and news about their platform should have not only the effect of rallying conservatives but also rallying progressives. While the economy is the number one issue, we have recently seen views of the economy coalesce around ideology and also note that economic and social issues are not as conceptually or materially distinct as the GOP would have it.

So I decided to give a sketch of antinomies in which conservatives do not apply their principles universally: an oddity in itself since it is they who generally abide in the belief that there are universal, timeless principles that everybody would assent to if they were "rational."

1.  Less government for the markets, more government to police society and limit individual freedoms and civil rights.

This is why conservatives are trying to hush the abortion and gay marriage debates since they show that they would rather not confront the tension between their belief in free markets and their belief that individuals should not exercise their legal freedom over their reproductive futures and their civil right to marry their significant others regardless of gender, which last I checked was legal in six states and the District of Columbia and impending in two states (Maryland and Washington) in the new year.

Their continuing stance against drug legalization is also an instance of amusement because they want to hinder it through government means: in essence, they want to impose limits on buyers and sellers in that enterprise.

2.  Pro-religion but anti-Muslim or anti-non-Protestant.

They want prayer in schools for Christians and they want the Ten Commandments in courthouses, but want to marginalize Muslims, restrict the building of mosques near Ground Zero, and raise questions about whether Mormonism is a legitimate faith.

3.  They favor free speech but only for their own voices and not for those who disagree with them.

The Akin affair, however, is a bit of a mystery since it was an instance in which one of their own enunciated his uneducated view on rape -- the idea of "legitimate rape" -- when so many of them invoke similar terminologies to restrict abortions or to claim that there is not such a thing as "extreme circumstances" in which abortion may be medically necessary. But we have had many instances in which conservatives have sought to have it both ways. While they were rightfully a leading force in the criticism of campus speech codes during the days of the academic culture wars, they have been some of the leading proponents of constitutional amendments to ban flag burning, ban the mention of contraception or abortion in sex education classes, demand that science teachers in public schools identify evolution as a "theory," and demand that creationism is a worthy "alternative" to evolutionary science, and so on. Some regressive school districts in Texas and other backwater states have called for their history textbooks to be rewritten, so that they state Columbus did in fact first discover America, or downplay the fact that many of the founding fathers were deists or outright theological skeptics.

4.  Subsidize businesses, corporations, churches, and charter schools but restrict government funding to public schools and let individuals fall through the cracks even if market forces, such as mass layoffs or runaway costs in the medical system, have rendered such individuals in need of assistance.

Corporations might be too big to fail but individual persons hurt by market forces can be thrown to the wind and deprived of legal rights as consumers if they purchase defective products made by companies. All of this hinges on the notion of a fully informed "rational, autonomous, agency": an Enlightenment fiction of the highest order. Conservatives, who once with religious zeal defended the tobacco industry (many still do in the southern states that produce tobacco crops in high numbers), have hitched their saddles to wasteful energy industries that have profit motives for denying the consensus of climate science or challenge the claims of environmentalists who rightly point out the plainly observed effects of carbon pollution in our environment and in our bodies. "Rational autonomous agency," especially one that is fully informed, would reject the callousness of big energy and industry to continuously pollute our environment and the callousness of individuals to continue to buy products from these companies that accomplish the same results.

In seeking to fund only charter schools or private schools where teachers presumably are "performance driven" (as opposed to funding public schools where teachers are not "performance driven" because of their lush entitlement packages and union benefits), conservatives have yet to point to any conclusive study indicating that providing such schools or teachers with more money makes them better teachers. Public schools or the teachers who work in them are not simply "market mechanisms" that improve "productivity" when more money is thrown at them. This is a dangerous perception of how schools and teachers work and at best we can say that it even does not describe how agents in the market work. We could say that by throwing more money at the financial industry (in the form of bailouts), that industry would be less wasteful and more productive. And yet after all of the bailouts, there are still bank failures and risky bets by financial institutions (looking at you, J.P. Morgan).

At some point credible studies of student performance in the classroom must seriously take into consideration the economic and social backgrounds of the students, their cognitive abilities, and cultural aspects which may, in addition to teacher performance, help or hurt their intellectual development. The almost wholesale defunding of our public education system has created a situation that most teachers -- even good teachers -- find daunting: high student to faculty ratios. From my experience as a teacher, students tend to do better in a learning environment when they can get more personal, hands-on experience from teachers. This cannot occur in a school where there is one teacher for every sixty or seventy students. Students also tend to do better when their teachers encourage analytical thinking as well as content knowledge. The metaphorical model of the teacher as the disseminator of knowledge to the empty student mind must be tossed aside in favor of a model of the teacher as learning facilitator or coach: The idea that the teacher is not the one who tells students what, for example, Paradise Lost is about, but the idea of the teacher as one who asks the student what Paradise Lost is about, based upon the student's reading of that work. What purpose does it serve to tell the student what a book is about if the student cannot or will not read it? Conservatives and learning theory traditionalists still have this sentimental idea of knowledge as dissemination and retention of unrelated facts as opposed to knowledge as conversation or dialogue and as long as our education and standardized testing system still relies upon the former model, students won't learn anything.

They tried to obstruct health reform with visions of the big, bad, nasty bear of socialism sticking its fingers into the porridge of taxpayer funds; now the "entitlements" hysteria is their story of more and more government debt created from reform. But debt will occur anyway with uninsured individuals leaving emergency rooms on the hook for their expenses and these unpaid expenses eventually drive up the cost of insurance for those who are insured.


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About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/.   (back)


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Published September 10, 2012